This week, we have once again been reminded about the danger of working at a chemical plant or an oil refinery, and the incredible importance of making sure strong safety measures are in place and followed thoroughly at every plant in the chemical and oil & gas industries.
Chemical Fires Spread Quickly
According to authorities, a drop in water pressure apparently caused a chemical fire in two tanks at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, located about 15 miles southeast of Houston, to spread to several more adjacent tanks. In all, according to the Deer Park Office of Emergency Management, the fire has since spread to a total of eight tanks, including two additional tanks 0n Tuesday.
Firefighters said the pumps on two boats that were feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours Monday evening, causing two more tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner, to catch fire.
Two of the eight tanks that caught fire were empty, but others contained materials used in creating certain types of glues, nail polish remover and paint thinner. Some tanks contained gasoline. The two empty tanks have already collapsed, but the others continue to burn as of Wednesday morning. While company officials once suggested the fires should burn themselves out by today, Harris County Fire officials have noted that the tanks hold 80,000 barrels (3.3 million gallons) of flammable liquids that are difficult to put out with water or foam suppressants.
The company that owns the terminal added a 15-person crew experienced in battling tank-farm fires, in addition to more high-pressure pumps and suppressant foam on Tuesday. However, according to fire officials, the safest thing to do may be to let the fire go out when the fuel inside the tanks is burned up. No one is hazarding a guess as to how long that will take.
The Smoke Rises; What Damage Might it Cause?
In the meantime, thick plumes of black smoke rise from the fire and can be seen as far away as Houston. Students at area schools returned to classes Tuesday, but school officials plan to restrict outdoor activities while the smoke continues to rise from the fires. On Sunday, Deer Park issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire city of 34,000 residents, but the order was lifted early Monday after air-quality tests showed no unsafe levels of chemicals, according to the city.
Though air pollution monitors have not found levels that exceed those considered safe, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has also installed additional air monitors near the site, and they will continue to monitor.
Harris County and Houston officials have said there is a low risk to the public from the chemical cloud, primarily because it was several thousand feet above the ground. However, some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have deployed ten air-quality monitors of their own, to check for nitrogen oxides and soot all over Houston. They plan to add another ten monitors in the near future.
It’s Not Just About Air Quality
The effects aren’t limited to air quality. Some of the water and chemicals from the burning plant have washed into the Houston Ship Channel, which links Houston, which is one of the largest petrochemical ports in the world, with the Gulf of Mexico.
Chemical plants, like oil and gas operations, are inherently dangerous places, for both the workers at the plants and those who live in the surrounding community. The owners of these plants cannot be lax on safety and security and they owe it to the workers at the plant and the community who allows them to operate to make sure everyone is safe and healthy. If an investigation of this fire and its spread uncovers lax safety at the plant, Intercontinental Terminals Company should be held accountable.
Too often, fires and explosions happen at plants like this because the companies that run them like to take shortcuts as a way to maximize their profits. Unfortunately, when these types of accidents result in significant environmental damage, there is a potential for injuries and damages to show up for a very long time.